With events in Washington, IDEA workshops help spread and improve democracy
Fixing Congress and making democracy better are lofty goals. But they’re challenges that the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) was made for.
IDEA's Director, Michael Neblo, is a professor in Ohio State’s Department of Political Science, and in his roles over many years, IDEA has made connections and conducted research to start chipping away at the problems in Congress and with our current democracy.
“Rather than trying to come up with good policies directly, IDEA uses its expertise to create opportunities for regular citizens to engage directly with their elected officials in constructive dialogue about pressing issues of the day,” Neblo said. “In the spirit of Ohio State’s land grant tradition, IDEA’s mission is to ensure that people from all walks of life can engage in constructive politics and feel confident that their participation matters.”
Last month, IDEA co-sponsored two separate but related events in Washington that were all about making democracy better. The first event, on Nov. 16, brought together more than 25 legislators from the United States and around the world — including a dozen members of Congress — for an exchange of ideas about getting citizens directly involved in democracy.
The second event was the final meeting of a Congressional committee that brought forward more than 200 recommendations to improve the way our legislature runs.
Together, the two events continued IDEA’s mission to serve the public good in local, state, national and international communities, especially in an era of partisan gridlock in the U.S. and democratic “backsliding” across the globe where extremist groups on both sides are gaining more political power and public trust and approval in government is low.
“Democratic governments have been under increasing pressure to deliver results to their citizens,” Neblo said. “However, we live in an ever-more complex and interdependent world, so the ability of any one government on its own to be able to deliver what its citizenry wants is waning.
“Moreover, they’re so desperate to come up with technical policy solutions that the temptation really is to push citizens into the background and let the experts handle it. But that just deepens the alienation and the suspicion that it’s out of touch elites who are running the show.”
IDEA’s events aim to reverse that thought process, putting citizens at the forefront of their democracies internationally and cleaning up the bureaucracy that causes gridlock here in the U.S.
INTERNATIONAL LEGISLATORS EXCHANGE
At IDEA’s first event in November, IDEA worked with partners including the Berggruen Institute and the Bertelsmann Foundation to bring together 12 members of Congress with legislators from Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom and the European Parliament. This event, the first in what Neblo says will be an annual event with alternating host countries, was all about discussing ways that the nations bring their citizens into the lawmaking process.
Currently, most lawmakers rarely hear from anyone but lobbyists and special interest groups. But when legislators at the event hear what their international peers are doing to promote democracy, IDEA hopes they can take ideas back to their home countries and make the average person’s viewpoint more prominent.
“The focus of the discussion was innovations in democracy — novel ways of bringing regular citizens into the lawmaking process, reaching out affirmatively rather than waiting for people to come to them,” Neblo said. “If you wait for people to come to you, only the usual suspects show up.”
Legislators heard many ideas, including a European Parliament initiative where lawmakers had multi-day deliberations with regular citizens, something that encouraged Neblo because the European Union is much larger and more geographically and culturally complex than the United States.
Legislators also heard about the Brazilian practice of “participatory budgeting,” where citizens are involved in the discussion of how to spend the country’s discretionary money. And in Ireland, legislators shared details of a program where 40-50 random citizens were paired with delegates from the country’s major political parties to hash out issues and then send referenda to a vote.
For its part, the U.S. shared its concept of deliberative town halls with the international legislators. In the deliberative town halls, representatives and randomly selected constituents meet to discuss a single issue in depth, avoiding scripted talking points and rancorous outbursts. IDEA has already run some deliberative town halls in Australia with plans to run them in more countries soon.
“The goal of this exchange was to let lawmakers from around the world hear directly from each other about the pretty stunning advances some of their peers are making” Neblo said. “The ideas have much more credibility that way.”
Representative Ed Perlmutter from Colorado was so impressed with the event that he used his allotted time at IDEA’s second event to praise the exchange.
FIX CONGRESS COHORT
The second event with involvement from IDEA was the final business meeting and lunch of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (SCMC). That Committee, which is run by Congressmen Derek Kilmer (Washington) and William Timmons (South Carolina), was founded in 2019 and aims to develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.
IDEA is part of the Fix Congress Cohort, a group that reports up to the Committee with studies and recommendations. The recommendations can be simple things like getting all of Congress onto shared calendar software rather than the current, archaic system where every group uses its own paper calendar that results in overlapping meetings and poor communication.
The Cohort can also recommend larger changes, including pay raises for Congressional staffers that could result in greater diversity in Congress and fewer lapses in institutional knowledge caused by staffers departing for higher-paying private-sector jobs.
“This is one of the key reasons why Congress can’t push back when lobbyists show up with these reports and make claims,” Neblo said. “There’s nobody left around who remembers any different or has the expertise to push back against them. Congress has systematically lobotomized itself.”
During its existence, the SCMC also participated in one of IDEA’s signature Deliberative Town Halls. Participants enjoyed the ability to engage in a meaningful, substantive, and thorough conversation about important issues and it made them feel that their voices were truly being heard, which is often not the case with other forms of constituent engagement. Forums that allow members to engage and deliberate with representative groups in a structured format can provide members with a more accurate picture of constituent opinion, which, in turn, can help them as they develop policy.
At the Committee’s final meeting and lunch, Neblo was given a speaking slot where he espoused, among other things, that legislators meeting with citizens is “over-the-top popular” with those citizens. The Committee also ratified its last batch of recommendations for Congress and discussed the future of Congressional reform.
Even though the Committee is dissolving, it completed its work with over 200 recommendations to Congress, all of which IDEA can get behind.
And, Neblo says, if the Committee does re-form under a different name, IDEA will be there, helping guide it toward a better democracy.
“Let’s start the conversation,” Neblo said. “Nobody thought a lot of things that have happened were going to happen 20 years before they happened.”